“To This Annoyance We Are Called”: Why Dialogue is Not Dead in the Church
This weekend I am heading to New York to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Just Resolution in the Ogletree case. I am grateful for the invitation and I’ve been doing my best to prepare. When the panel was announced, many cried foul: “We’ve been talking for 40 years!” “Dialogue is dead!”
Both the left and the right are difficult to please with these conversations. People associated with Love Prevails (for whom “love” apparently means crashing every gathering of 2 or more Methodists with placards and a video camera) declared that “violence” was done at the recent Connectional Table panel discussion, presumably because one person was bold enough to suggest the Book of Discipline might be correct. Conservatives often feel set-up in these discussions, which, is claimed, often seem weighted against them – this was certainly true in the CT dialogue, which makes the resulting progressive outrage all the more confusing. Conservative Methodists have also pre-determined that I am a progressive because I have been known to criticize the right (because, if you aren’t for us, you are against us), and thereby dismissing me before the conversation happens. Thus, if you listen to those on the fringes, it is easy to believe that dialogue is fruitless. But there are others who deserve a hearing.
In his dense but valuable little work Church in Crisis, Oliver O’Donovan examines the sexuality controversy in the Anglican Communion. He notes that a major part of the crisis was a failure to do the hard work of communal discernment:
…the North American churches merely acted, in default of a thorough deliberative process of their own, under the force of strong cultural pressures, the reasons for which they never explained even to themselves, since an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)
Theology is not some academic pursuit that is or should be confined to cloistered students in seminary, but the name given to conversation with and through the Church. While it is easy to lose patience with what O’Donovan called the “discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together,” to shun this calling to cease being the Church. That said, we should also be honest enough to admit that it can also lead to much consternation, especially in a worldwide communion like Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or the United Methodism. Differences in culture, language, theological emphases, political context, and other matters can lead to a great deal of friction in the work of Christian conversation. But, O’Donovan notes,
“…to this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and so spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more.” (81)
Of course dialogue is uncomfortable. It’s always easier to live life surrounded by those who do not challenge us (studies suggest that those around us impact our ability to reason independently). But God’s people are not called to comfort, we are called to the communion of love and truth that is the Body of Christ. We are called to struggle with the Spirit, trusting that God will not leave us without His voice. Afterall, it took us centuries to get to Nicea (pictured above), and thus to define some of our core doctrines; it never has been and never will be as simple as an appeal to Scripture and/or common sense. We are called to wrestle, and, like Jacob wrestling until morning, we may walk away limping. But we might also discover we’ve received God’s blessing in the process. O’Donovan concludes his book with an exhortation to keep striving:
“But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to disciplines of patient common inquiry…
There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.” (118-119)
Our calling as Christians is, in part, a calling to be in conversation with one another, in charity and humility. As Paul said to the Ephesians,
“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ” (Ephesians 4:1b-3)
May God continue to give us patience to live out our calling as the Body of Christ – even when it is annoying – and may we followers of the Crucified One lay down our arms so that we can endure each other. And this, not out of some sentimental devotion to harmony, but out of devotion to the triune God, that the Church may be one and the world may believe.